Opinion | The news headlines are awash with the story of 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger of Norwalk, Ohio who, upon turning 18, decided to publicly criticize his mother for not giving him every government recommended vaccine when he was a child. A disagreement between a mother and her son turned into a media circus when Ethan publicly celebrated his 18th birthday by calling his parents “kind of stupid” and getting vaccinated. His name has appeared in articles in major newspapers such as The Washington Post and USA Today and magazines such as People. He has been interviewed on television by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and on radio by NPR’s Scott Simon. And that’s just for starters.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Almost overnight, Ethan became a media star and achieved Andy Warhol’s so-called “15 minutes of fame.” Many mainstream journalists and news commentators are still lining up to interview and quote Ethan about his views on vaccination. But if you look at the news headlines, there is a troubling theme that emerges which has nothing to do with the teenager’s knowledge about the subject of vaccination and health.
The sensationalist headlines focus almost exclusively on the son’s disapproval, defiance and very public rebellion against his “anti-vaxxer” mother, leading one to question whether media hounds are actually interested in what Ethan thinks or are merely using him as a foil to attack parents who are legitimately concerned about protecting their children from vaccine reactions. Is the media making Ethan the adult poster child for teenage rebellion against parents as an excuse to demonize any mother or father who becomes educated about diseases and vaccines and concludes that one-size-fits-all vaccine schedules recommended by public health officials and medical trade groups will not protect the health of their child?1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
A USA Today headline reads, “Son defies mom, chooses to get vaccinated at 18: ‘God knows how I’m still alive’.” A similar headline in People magazine reads, “Ohio Teen Chooses to Get Vaccinated in Defiance of His Anti-Vaxx Parents: ‘God Knows How I’m Still Alive’.” The headline in The Washington Post reads, “Unvaccinated teens are fact-checking their parents—and trying to get shots on their own.”5 7 8
The underlying implication of headlines such as these is that Ethan came to his senses and realized that his mother was just ignorant and had been endangering his life by not vaccinating him. In fact, two of the more popular quotes from Ethan used in articles about this story are, “My parents are kind of stupid” and “God knows how I’m still alive.”1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Interestingly, nobody thought to ask Ethan about the state of his health throughout his childhood. Was he a healthy baby? Had he been a healthy boy growing up? Was there a personal or family history of brain or immune system disorders or reactions to vaccines? Which of the infectious diseases for which vaccines are available did he think he probably would have died from because he was unvaccinated?
It is also fascinating to observe the degree to which the media is characterizing 18-year-old Ethan as an expert on vaccination while painting his mother, Jill Wheeler, as just another uninformed “anti-vaxxer.” Ethan is automatically accorded respect and the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he’s talking about, while his mother clearly is not.
Where did Ethan get his information about vaccine safety and effectiveness? Most likely he got it from the Internet. The same place most everyone goes—including a lot of reporters, legislators and even health care professionals. The difference is that Ethan came to a different conclusion than his mother did. This should come as no great surprise to anyone with teenage children subjected to peer pressure that can contribute to a great deal of tension between parents and children, just like the tension that apparently developed between Ethan and his mother when he realized that most or all of his friends were vaccinated and he was not. Peer pressure that made him feel like the oddball teen?5
However, some of the media articles about this story have suggested that the real reason Ethan and his mother differ on the issue of vaccination is that Ethan has looked at and understands “the science” and his mother does not. An article in The Washington Post published the following quote from Allison Winnike, president and chief executive of the Texas-based vaccine advocacy group Immunization Partnership, who commented on the story about Ethan and his Mom and made a global statement:
This generation of unvaccinated children coming of age has looked at the science and want to protect themselves.5
The assumption here is that the science about vaccine safety and effectiveness is clear and is settled. But it is that very assumption that is at the core of the growing debate on vaccination. It is a tug of war between those who believe scientific knowledge is a relatively static body of knowledge with a beginning and an endpoint and those who view scientific knowledge as a fluid learning process that is constantly evolving and uncovering new insights.12 13
In an article for The Vaccine Reaction in 2017, I wrote that science “evolves through the process of uncensored inquiry, debate and dissent, challenge and rechallenge, experimentation and discovery. The same is true for the science of vaccination.”14
In a CBS Morning News interview with Ethan and his mother, Dr. Tara Narula noted that Ethan “showed his parents scientific studies that showed vaccines were safe and effective, but his mother remained unconvinced.”11 Ethan’s mother Jill Wheeler told Dr. Narula that she was concerned about vaccine risks and wanted to protect her son from a vaccine reaction. “It was just straight up fear of him getting these immunizations and having a bad reaction,” she said. “I think a lot of people look at this as a straight, black and white answer, and I don’t feel like it is.”11
Ethan’s Mom went on to defend her son, clearly because she loves him. She said, “I’m very proud of him for standing for what he believes in, even if it is against what I believe. He’s a good boy.”11
Uncensored inquiry, debate and dissent, challenge and rechallenge is the hallmark of good science and it is the hallmark of a society that values freedom of thought, speech and conscience. That is precisely what has occurred not only in Ethan Lindenberger’s family but is occurring in families across the U.S. and around the world as more people become better educated about vaccination and health. Sadly, that is what the media has neglected to acknowledge in its coverage of this story.
Shamefully, most media outlets are opting instead to pit children against parents for the purpose of adding fuel to what is becoming a very uncivil and one-sided public conversation about vaccine policy in this country.
1 Braine T. Teen gets vaccinated, rebelling against anti-vaxxer mom. New York Daily News Feb. 11, 2019.
2 Cooper A. Teen opts to get vaccinated despite mother’s objection. CNN Feb. 12, 2019.
3 Chiaramonte P. Anti-vaxxer revolt grows on Reddit among teens. Fox News Feb. 12, 2019.
4 Folley A. Teen defies parents, gets first vaccinations during measles outbreaks in US. The Hill Feb. 9, 2019.
5 Horton A. Unvaccinated teens are fact-checking their parents—and trying to get shots on their own. The Washington Post Feb. 11, 2019.
6 Johnson J. His Mom Is an Anti-Vaxxer. At 18, He Got His Shots. Newser Feb. 12, 2019.
7 May A. Son defies mom, chooses to get vaccinated at 18: ‘God knows how I’m still alive’. USA Today Feb. 12, 2019.
8 Mazziotta J. Ohio Teen Chooses to Get Vaccinated in Defiance of His Anti-Vaxx Parents: ‘God Knows How I’m Still Alive’. People Feb. 11, 2019.
9 Morris A. Defying Parents, A Teen Decides To Get Vaccinated, NPR Feb. 9, 2019.
10 Pesce NL. Anti-vaxxer kids are rebelling against their parents by vaccinating themselves. MarketWatch Feb. 11, 2019.
11 CBS This Morning. Ohio teen defies mother and gets vaccinated after turning to strangers online. CBS News Feb. 12, 2019.
12 Cáceres M. Harvard Medical School Doctor: Vaccine Science is Not Settled. The Vaccine Reaction Aug. 18, 2018.
13 Raines K. The Vaccine Science is Unsettled. The Vaccine Reaction Jan. 25, 2017.
14 Cáceres M. Yes, Vaccination is 18th Century Science. The Vaccine Reaction Dec. 12, 2017.